For Braden River High football, the biggest difference heading into the 2022 season is stability.
It is something the program thought it would have last season, with a predetermined starting quarterback in then-sophomore Nick Trier, a talented stable of running backs and a highly-touted freshman class, plus multiple veterans leaders on defense.
Instead, the 2021 season was anything but stable. Trier was lost after two games because of an ankle injury. Most of the Pirates' running back stable suffered injuries which left third-string Trayvon Pinder, who is now a junior, as the lead running back.
The injuries continued to pile up throughout the season, to the extent offensive coordinator Eric Sanders was forced to dramatically change the team's pass-heavy scheme to a run-oriented scheme. The Pirates kept winning anyway and finished the year 9-2 including a road playoff win over Countryside High, 30-16.
While it was not an experience Head Coach Curt Bradley and his staff want to have again, the injury situation did give the team's younger players a swath of experience, something that should benefit Braden River in 2022. Trier, now a junior and fully recovered from his injury, will be back under center. Bradley said during a Suncoast Media Days event held at The Mall at UTC that Trier has "all the tools" a quarterback needs to succeed.
Bradley appears to be right. Trier has impressed college coaches enough in the offseason to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship offer from the University of Alabama-Birmingham despite his limited varsity experience.
In fact, there are few question marks at the Pirates' key positions, something that should ease the minds of Bradley and his staff. After being thrust into the running back job in 2021, Pinder rushed for 1,190 yards and 13 touchdowns on 208 carries (5.7 yards per carry). Bradley said Pinder has been putting in work this offseason to prepare for the responsibility of being the team's No. 1 running back.
"He's up to 212 pounds," Bradley said of Pinder during the event. "He's a brick. The biggest thing he struggled with last year was conditioning. I don't think he was expecting to take a majority of the carries for us right away. But now he understands what it means to take care of his body to be available for us for four quarters. We're excited for him to have a big junior year."
Adding to the offense will be Craivontae Koonce, the 6-foot wide receiver/tight end who led the Pirates in catches (18) and yards (279) in 2021. With Trier under center, those numbers are likely to significantly increase.
On defenses, the Pirates bring back two equally commanding presences in senior linebackers Aidan Dangler and Tanner Wolfe. The players combined for 238 tackles in 2021, which was 28% of the team's total tackles. Bradley said he's asked his seniors to be more vocal leaders this year in addition to leading by example.
"We're helping them learn the plays and get into the right state of mind so they're not doing anything stupid," Dangler said. "We're showing them how to work hard and how the right things will happen if you do that."
Outside of Dangler and Wolfe, junior safety Conner Kisiah, a transfer from Parrish Community High, has impressed with his tackling ability. Junior defensive lineman Cody Kawcak has shown he can generate pressure from the outside and the inside.
Under the Florida High School Athletic Association's new Metro/Suburban classification system for football, the Pirates will play in the Suburban 3 Class, in a district with Southeast High, Port Charlotte High and Parrish Community High. The move will not affect the team's regular-season schedule much other than guaranteeing those three teams are on it, but it could help their postseason prospects.
In 2021, the Pirates were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by Tampa Jesuit, a national powerhouse that went on to win the state championship. Tampa Jesuit is now considered a Metro school, so Braden River will no longer have to worry about facing the Tigers, and the Pirates' other postseason nuisance of years past — Venice High — is in the Suburban 4 Class.
In other words, if Braden River reaches the postseason — as it has the talent to do — it could find itself with an enviable path to a possible state championship.
As much fun as that is for Pirates fans to think about, Bradley is worried about the regular season first and foremost, despite the team's returning talent.
"We know what we're going to get from our core group of guys," Bradley said. "Now we're looking to plug in a few other pieces and go from there. Right now we are ahead of schedule from where we have been the last three or four years. We're fine-tuning some things and then we're hoping to hit the ground running."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.